This was a Sheldonian concert with a difference, both a competition and a showcase. The Oxford Philharmonic and Oxfordshire County Music Service in partnership staged their annual Junior Concerto Competition, and this year it was for under-18s, with a £500 prize for the winner.
The organisers were kind enough to let me attend afternoon rehearsals and to interview the three finalists. The rehearsals made for interesting viewing in that for this occasion the baton passed from the County Youth Orchestra's John Traill to the OP's own Marios Papadopoulos. He's an ideal man for this guest conductor role, being always the most sympathetic of conductors with concerto soloists, and I was struck by his combination of drive and coaxing in the way he handled his 65 or so teenage players over a lengthy session and one requiring constant concentration from these young players. It was an experience upon which they can draw in their musical years to come.
First up of the competition soloists was Leo Appel, a Year 12 student at Matthew Arnold School, the youngest but hardly the least experienced of the three, having first taken to the violin aged four! His piece was Saint-Saens' Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso from 1863, and typical of the composer in its emphasis on lively melody. Mr Appel, all in black, cut a modest figure in front of the orchestra, but there was nothing modest about the way he tucked into the lighting-quick arpeggios and chromatic scale passages as the piece kept leading back to the rondo at its heart. This in a way is café music – I visualised a costumed band touring the bistrots of the cobbled streets of Vienna or Budapest – and perfectly chosen for a competition. The solo part demanded energy and brio, and got both from Mr Appel.
Next came Ruth Friedlander, ex-Oxford High School and presently on a gap year, playing the 1st movement of Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor. When I spoke to her beforehand, she impressed me with her methodical, carefully-thought out approach to her music and her future. In a long beige dress, she took her time preparing herself on stage before slipping into the main theme after a very short orchestral introduction. Then came a short tutti that leads into a lyrical melody. The soloist duets first with the woodwinds, then with the horns, and Ms Friedlander led us carefully through Schumann's twist and turns to the hushed ending. Whether this was the right piece for a competition I have my doubts. The solo part is fairly sotto voce, and there was limited scope for Ms Friedlander to project the cello's voice well forward of that of the orchestra.
Third up was Hannah Gillingham from Cherwell School with Carl Reinecke's Ballade for Flute and Orchestra. Reinecke was a well-known 19th century music professor who numbered Arthur Sullivan, Edvard Grieg and a daughter of Franz Liszt among his students. Ms Gillingham, an enthusiastic and articulate personality and keen on the development of junior music at her school, has just won a place at the Royal College of Music, one of only three flutes to do so. The Ballade is in a single section, though it has three distinct tempo changes, and allows a show of agility in the quicker, scherzo-like figuration of the solo flute part. Ms Gillingham gradually stepped up the tempo, maintaining a clear tone and dexterity through the later trills, with lots of swaying movement suggesting her emotional response to the music.
After the interval, we heard Emma Lisney play the solo part in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major. Ms Lisney is a 2nd year student at Pembroke College and was the winner of the under-21 Junior Concerto Competition last year. This appearance opportunity was part of her winner's prize. She stood insouciantly in a long royal blue dress as she played this work, very familiar in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky's only violin concerto. From the avoidance of flashiness in her diamond-bright figures in the opening cadenza, to her reverie during the canzonetta's folk-like theme, to the beguiling Russian dance played at the bottom of the register in the allego vivacissimo, and then with disciplined verve at the end, Ms Lisney remained a relaxed but focused figure. The orchestra, after a somewhat scraping start from the strings, played its part nobly in this long, demanding work. There were excellent solos from flute and horn, the clarinets and oboes combined perfectly in the canzonetta's chorale, and the strings rose to crescendos where required and struck out boldly for the big tune.
The Chairman of the panel of judges told us after the music-making was done that the judging had been tight, then announced Leo Appel as the popular, merited winner. Mr Appel had told me in the afternoon that he would be 'very disappointed' were he not to win the competition, and how important the win would be for his musical career. That future now looks rosy.